What’s So Funny? : It’s About Time Sitcoms Can the Canned Laughter

Eve Glicksman is a writer in the Philadelphia area

It’s enough that most situation comedies on television are not funny. What turns banal into reprehensible is that some producer-director stacks the soundtrack with calculated cackles and guffaws that rival an Ed McMahon fest.

I picture some character in a sound room deviously inserting giggles, titters and roars. The uncontrollable laughs, of course, have been generated by a performance other than the show I’m watching . . . and couldn’t I be watching that instead?

The dirty truth is that even the live studio audience you hear in hysterics may not be. The television industry has a term called “sweetening,” which means that recorded laughter and applause is added to the final soundtrack when the live audience’s mirth is not up to par.

Now do these television bozos think we do not notice that the riotous howls and bellows bursting from the set are not commensurate with the humor being offered? Do they think we’re going to chortle like trained seals just because other people are?


Well, yes, says Moylan Mills, a professor of media arts at Penn State University’s Abington-Ogontz campus. “It’s a cheap gimmick but it works,” Mills says. "[Laugh tracks] are a way to hype viewer reaction by indicating some unseen audience is convulsed by the antics on-screen . . . and you should be, too.” Today, even the better hit sitcoms--the likes of “Murphy Brown,” “Roseanne” and “Cybill"--play it safe with recorded laughs.

The theory is that comedy goes over better in groups. You laugh reflexively because other people are. By laughing along, you leave your lonely living room and become part of this congenial crowd. It’s about our desire for social approval . . . and the underlying premise we are stupid.

Since the advent of television, producers have relied on live audience “warmups” and recorded laughter as insurance against dead silence. If the show doesn’t get real laughs, at least make it look like it’s the viewer whose sense of humor is wanting.

Laugh tracks “disguise non-comedy as comedy,” says John Lent, professor of communications at Temple University. “If you took out the laughs, you wouldn’t even know you were watching a sitcom,” he says. Most television episodes have to be written in three or four days, which is too little time to write a really good half-hour comedy, he maintains.


The use of laugh tracks supports the charge that television is a passive medium. To induce us to laugh through surreptitious means is to promote television zombie-ism. The background laugh-a-rama numbs us from material that is sexist, stupid or otherwise offensive. We go with the program, grinning even when it’s not funny. It’s part of the dumb and dumber anti-intellectual tide in this country, Lent says.


Like commercials, however, prerecorded laughter is so pervasive that most people don’t notice or mind. Perhaps the White House should try yukking up press conferences with hardy-har-hars from hidden speakers to lighten up reporters. And heck, if we need to be told when to laugh, maybe a string adagio should accompany the evening news to cue us when news is sad.

The point is that we should be making our own decisions about what’s rib-tickling or tragic. Our sense of humor should be off limits to television impresarios who seek to manipulate chuckles for profit.

After all, I write for print without the fallback of demeaning ploys to make readers hoot and holler. If the people who produce television comedies don’t think the material is going to get laughs on its own, why not come up with a better show?